Issue 40 (2013)

Liubov’ Arkus: Anton's Right Here (Anton tut riadom, 2012)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2013

Several years ago, the respected film journal Seans published a strange poem entitled ‘People’ by an unknown author, Anton Kharitonov:

People are kind, happy, sad, kind, good, grateful;
Big people, small people.
[People] wander, run, jump, talk, watch, listen...
People are finite. People fly… People endure…

antonThe poem ‘People’ started the whole documentary project and can be heard in its entirety at the end of the film. Seans editor Liubov’ Arkus wanted to meet the author. She and her crew found Anton, a teenage boy with autism. It is hard to believe that this shy, constantly moving, inarticulate boy could have written something so perceptive. Over the next four years Arkus followed Anton, encouraging him to express himself from writing in the sand at a lakeside summer camp to observing his scribbles on his wallpaper at home. She followed him as he continually walked away from her camera. She observed him at home with his single mother Rinata. She accompanied him with different crew members through the ups and downs of his life: constantly running away, self-harming from one institution to another, experiencing happiness in making a strong connection with a volunteer worker, discovering new survival skills. She watched as his life turned upside down when he lost his mother to cancer and was left all alone. And she was there when Anton eventually found a relationship with his estranged father.

antonFrom the first shot of Anton running around, yelping incoherently in the grey light of destitution there is a realization that this is going to be difficult viewing: the lead character will repulse, he will be exploited and tragedy will befall him. But gradually we warm to Anton. It is his desire to communicate and to be close, to be near, to be loved that is the driving force of the film. Gradually, surreptitiously he brings us in and we get close to him. The camera always follows him as he tries to move away. Perhaps it is a game; perhaps he is not running away; perhaps this is a game of tag where he wants to be caught, eventually. He is most comfortable in the countryside where he finds buoyancy at a community facility. Through his friendship with David, one of the volunteers, Anton becomes more confident and articulate. But when David leaves, Anton’s world falls apart. He becomes unmanageable for the community and ends up in a psychiatric ward, heavily sedated and deeply unhappy.
There are three things that I find continually surprising about Russia: the hot, humid and lush summers; the lack of knowledge in the West about the way in which people with disabilities are treated in Russia; and how cinema or, specifically the camera, can make a difference to people’s lives.

antonAnton’s Right Here is an unusual documentary. It is not only a durational observational documentary as the director and the cameraman, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, get involved in the action over a number of years. It is not really a typical social welfare film demonstrating how miserable conditions are and complaining about lack of resources. It is not an essay film, although it does have that feel of the narrator ruminating about the nature of the camera and the documentary process, the impact of the camera on the subject and upon themselves and their personal connections to the narrative while making unexpected associations. But it is one of the most important documentaries to come out of Russia in many years for the emotional and social impact and its disarming simplicity, frankness and readiness to tackle a difficult subject with a clear argument, but without an issue-based agenda. 

anton Arkus is not unlike Agnes Varda in her restless search for something intangible in The Gleaners & I (2000). There is an awareness of herself not only as an objective filmmaker, but as a participant. The claim, mid-way through Anton’s Right Here, that the director needed to enter the frame and get involved, that she needed not just to observe Anton, but to cuddle and engage with him directly, is understandable and humane, but somewhat disingenuous. What should we expect? Why this subject and not another? Is there a social welfare agenda to demonstrate the plight of the unrecognized and unsupported autistic community in Russia? If there is it, it certainly emerges as part of the subtext.

antonWe spend a great deal of time making sense of Anton, searching for what he needs and wants. It is obvious that he hungers for closeness, for affection and for love. But he also understands that the human condition demands a capacity to endure. Clearly institutions are inappropriate for him. The Russian medical health system does not officially acknowledge autism as a diagnosis. It is not clear whether systemic help would be better if there was official recognition. The people working in the institutions are good, but the system is absurd. Sedated in a psychiatric ward, without adequate engagement and communication to prevent him from running away appears to be reasonable solution to prevent him from self-harming, but he needs love and attention. His single mother provides this, but she needs help, too, when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

antonThere is something in the fine line between Arkus’ seemingly tacit cooperation with Anton that stops the documentary from becoming an act of exploitation, but it does walk a fine line. It resonates with Catherine’s Scott’s film Scarlet Road (2011), an extraordinarily powerful exploration of disability and sexuality that follows the sassy, funny and switched-on Rachel Wotton in her sex work with severely disabled clients, exploring their dreams and sexuality. While Scott’s film is a collaboration with her hero, the politically astute and articulate Rachel, Arkus’ film appears to be more a case of Anton accepting the camera’s presence without necessarily understanding its impact. There is a lovely, albeit brief moment when Anton is offered the camera. He instantly goes against the grain of filmmaking—shooting the sky and the clouds, which fill the screen. He sees the clouds in close-up and revels in the pleasure of his handywork. This brief innovation allows us to see the world differently, if only for an instant.

antonThe camera is celebrated as making a difference to Anton’s fate, not only in showing the changes in Anton and documenting his life, but also in presenting him to his father in a different light. It is by viewing parts of the material on the director’s monitor that Anton’s father and his new wife come to understand and accept Anton.

Arkus is actress, producer, director, scriptwriter, publisher and founding editor of the influential film journal Seans. She acted in Iurii Mamin’s brilliant perestroika satire, The Fountain (Fontan, 1989) and the comedy Kokoko (dir. Avdot’ia Smirnova, 2012). She has been one of the most influential film commentators in Russia over the past twenty years. So it is somewhat surprising that she engages with this particular project. It is important that Arkus is involved in more than just documenting Anton’s process of growing up: she is a participant in the process. Arkus has not just helped herself with festival fortunes and audience commendations at the expense of Anton, but she takes Anton into her life: he spends time at the journal’s headquarters, and his mother Rinata stayed with Arkus in the months before her death from cancer (she does not make a big deal out of this in the film). Rinata’s discoveries have a profound impact on Arkus’ view of her own past and her own family. It is perhaps overstated, but Anton does a great deal to help Arkus understand herself in a way that she could never have anticipated.

antonIt is not often that a documentary attracts so much attention in Russia and gains a mainstream release. According to Kinopoisk the film attracted 35,000 viewers and $20,000 at the box office. It is a reasonably rare example of a Russian theatrically released documentary. The film has attracted considerable commentary from filmmakers, producers and film commentators. These comments are full of professional and personal commendations and praise. This is a film about love, about being close to someone, no matter how hard they try to drive you away. It is about people. People who are endured and those who endure.

Greg Dolgopolov
University of New South Wales

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Anton’s Right Here, Russia, 2012
Color, HD, 110 mins
Director and Scriptwriter: Liubov’ Arkus
Cast (as themselves): Anton Kharitonov, Liubov’ Arkus, Renata Kharitonova, Vladimir Kharitonov, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, Sara Haugnauer.
Production: Seans Workshop, CTB Film Company
Produced by Aleksandr Golutva, Sergei Selianov
Executive producer: Konstantin Shavlovskii

Liubov’ Arkus: Anton's Right Here (Anton tut riadom, 2012)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2013

Updated: 13 Apr 13